On this day in comedy on July 1, 1947 Comedienne, Actress, Shirley Ann Hemphill was born in Ashville, North Carolina.
Hemphill wanted to be a standup so bad she sent her tape to Flip Wilson personally and he personally responded. They met and he encouraged her to get on the circuit and pay her dues. She followed that sound advice and after moving to L. A. and putting in some time at clubs like the Comedy Store she was noticed by the right casting person and got a guest part on Good Times. She was so good Norman Lear, the show’s producer, offered Hemphill her own show; a spin-off. She turned him down and instead won the part of “Shirley” on the ABC sitcom, What’s Happening!! The role of the smart mouthed diner waitress suited her comedic skills and spot on timing perfectly, but due to cast and contract problems the show was canceled after three seasons.
Hemphill parachuted out with her own sitcom, One in a Million. In it she played a cabbie who inherits a fortune from one of her fares. It was short-lived. So she went back and did a new version of her old sitcom, renamed, What’s Happening Now!! featuring a young talent, Martin Lawrence. It also lasted three season and once the revived version expired Hemphill went back on the road as a standup and she’d also make guest appearances on television (The Love Boat, Martin, Pryor’s Place, The Sinbad Show, Linc’s, The Wayans Bros.) and films (CB4 and Shoot the Moon).
The Laugh Factory regular performed stand-up on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, as well as, Black Comedy Showcase and Black Comedy Tonight, both on BET. She was busy touring when she fell ill forcing her off the road and into her house. Never fond of a pity party, Hemphill changed her number so she wouldn’t have to talk to her friends as she wasted away in seclusion. She refused surgery and was discovered by her gardener when he peeked through the window and found her lifeless on the floor. Hemphill died on December 10, 1999 of a heart attack brought on by renal failure in West Covina, California at the age of 52.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: